Beauty and the Borderline

A Journey towards Integration

Core Mindfulness: “What” — Observe, Describe, Participate

In DBT, mindfulness skills are broken down into two basic categories, “What” skills and “How” skills — “What” to do, and “How” to do it.

“What” skills are meant to be practiced one at a time.  Observe or describe or participate.

Taking Hold of Your Mind:  “What” skills

OBSERVE:  Japanese Marple

  • JUST NOTICE THE EXPERIENCE.  Notice without getting caught in the experience.  Experience without reacting to your experience.
  • Have a “TEFLON MIND,” letting experiences, feelings, and thoughts come into your mind and slip right out.
  • CONTROL your attention, but not what you see.  Push away nothing.  Cling to nothing.
  • Be like a guard at the palace gate, ALERT to every thought, feeling, and action that comes through the gate of your mind.
  • Step inside yourself and observe.  WATCH your thoughts coming and going, like clouds in the sky.  Notice each feeling, rising and falling, like waves in the ocean.  Notice exactly what you are doing.
  • Notice what comes through your SENSES — your eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue.  See others’ actions and expressions.  “Smell the roses.”

DESCRIBE:  Businesswoman Taking Notes

  • PUT WORDS ON THE EXPERIENCE.  When a feeling or thought arises, or you do something, acknowledge it.  For example, say in your mind, “Sadness has just enveloped me.” …or… “Stomach muscles tightening” …or… “A thought ‘I can’t do this’ has come into my mind” …or…”walking, step, step, step….”
  • PUT EXPERIENCES INTO WORDS.  Describe to yourself what is happening.  Put a name on your feelings.  Call a thought just a thought, a feeling just a feeling.  Don’t get caught in content.



  • Enter into your experiences.  Let yourself get involved in the moment, letting go of ruminating.  BECOME ONE WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE, COMPLETELY FORGETTING YOURSELF.
  • ACT INTUITIVELY from wise mind.  Do just what is needed in each situation — a skillful dancer on the dance floor, one with the music and your partner, neither willful nor sitting on your hands.
  • Actively PRACTICE your skills as you learn them until they become part of you, where you use them without self-consciousness.  PRACTICE:
    1. Changing harmful situations.
    2. Changing your harmful reactions to situations.
    3. Accepting yourself and the situation as they are.

–from Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan, p. 111.

The key to this, or to any new skill, is PRACTICE.  The great thing about mindfulness is that it’s nice to do.  It can take as little or as much time as you like, and it brings a sense of peace, a clearer head, and a greater focus.  I love to observe nature on a walk or from the car window.  I try to describe my feelings when they become intense, to validate them and slow down my wild, nasty thoughts.  I never have more fun than when I am playing with my son, loving how he astonishes me with his confidence in every new word or skill.

Can’t wait to try it, right?  Well, hold on a minute!  Core Mindfulness: “How” skills are next — they tell you how to observe, describe, or participate in a mindful way.

Once you have the Core Mindfulness basics, the “What” and “How” skills, you’re ready to start recording your skill use on your Diary Card.  Recording when you use your skills, or even just think about using them, is a great way to get used to using them.  Don’t forget to reward yourself for using your skills, even if it’s just a congratulatory pat on the back for trying something new!

Other resources:

DBT Skills Handbook, pp. 15 and 17

Taking Hold of Your Mind: “What” Skills:  Observing, Describing, and

Transcript of From Chaos to Freedom:  This One Moment: Skills for Everyday Mindfulness, a video lesson by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.

Using DBT to Help You Identify & Describe What You Feel@HealingfromBPD

Mindfulness: Observe, Mindfulness: Describe, and Mindfulness:


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This entry was posted on January 29, 2013 by in DBT, Mindfulness and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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